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Glass Flowers And Sea Creatures: Leopold And Rudolf Blaschka’s Ultra Realistic Glass Models

Blaschka Glass Models
A glass flower at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
It is nearly impossible to preserve a dead specimen in a pristine manner. Large vertebrates can be taxidermied, but invertebrates such as sea anemones and jellyfishes when sealed in a jar of alcohol or formaldehyde, lose their color and shape, eventually becoming little more than colorless blobs of floating jelly. Preserving botanical specimens also poses a challenge.
Flowers were traditionally pressed between two sheets of papers until they dried out. These, along with wax and papier-mâché models, were the only botanical specimens available before the development of modern materials such as plastic and fiberglass allowed the creation of accurate 3D models. But 19th museum curators had access to one wonder material, which, under the dexterous hands of a skilled craftsman, could be shaped into any form a naturalist desires. That material is glass.
In 1853, Leopold Blaschka, a glassmaker from Dresden boarded a ship for a trip to the United States. Leopold had suffered two devastating losses. In 1850, his first wife died of cholera. Two years later, his father died. The grieving Leopold decided that a vacation to the United States would help his heart heal. On the outward journey, his ship became becalmed for two weeks near the Azores, and Leopold passed the time collecting and drawing jellyfish and other marine invertebrates. The glasslike transparency of these animals, especially the bioluminescence fascinated him. He wrote:
It is a beautiful night in May. Hopefully, we look out over the darkness of the sea, which is as smooth as a mirror; there emerges all around in various places a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars. There emerges close before us a small spot in a sharp greenish light, which becomes ever larger and larger and finally becomes a bright shining sunlike figure.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones. Image credit: Australian Museum
Upon returning to Europe, Leopold focused on his family business which was the production the glass jewelry, costume ornaments, lab equipment, and other such fancy goods. In his free time, Leopold made glass models of plants for his own amusement. These models came to the attention of Prince Camille de Rohan, an aristocratic horticulturist in Brittany. Prince Rohan commissioned Leopold to make one hundred models of orchids and other exotic plants, which he displayed on two artificial tree trunks in his palace in Prague. These models came to the attention of another man— Professor Ludwig Reichenbach, director of the natural history museum in Dresden.
Thrilled at the craftsmanship, Reichenbach asked Leopold to make glass models of sea creatures that he found it so difficult to preserve in his museum, and in due course managed to convince Leopold to drop his current family business of making glass fancy goods in favor of glass marine invertebrates for museums, aquaria, universities, and private collectors. Leopold agreed, and within a short time Leopold’s mail-order enterprise became a successful venture. The timing was just right. The aquarium craze had begun in England, fueled by the availability of inexpensive plate glass and the discovery that seaweed could be used to oxygenate the water in aquariums. With Blaschkas’ models, it was possible to create fake aquariums with sea anemones and other invertebrates that required little or no maintenance. Aside from zoos, natural history museums from all across the world ordered thousands of these models. For the first time curators were able to display creatures in their living forms and colors that were permanent.
Blaschka Glass Models of flowers
Glass model of lathyrus splendens, a low shrub native to southern California, at the Harvard Museum of Natural history.
Blaschka Glass Models of flowers
Acer rubrum, or red maple, from the Glass Flowers collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
In 1886, Leopold, who was now assisted by his son Rudolph, was approached by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, who was in the process of setting up the Harvard Botanical Museum. Goodale requested them to make a series of botanical models for the new museum. At first Leopold was unwilling as his current business of selling glass sea creatures was hugely successful, but eventually he agreed. For the next fifty years, the Blaschkas made over four thousand glass models representing more than 780 plant species for Harvard. They are still one of Harvard's most treasured collection.
In 1889, in a letter to Mary Lee Ware, one of Leopold’s patrons, the master glassmaker wrote:
Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation. The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia. 
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones. Image credit: Australian Museum
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones. Image credit: Australian Museum
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones. Image credit: Australian Museum
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones. Image credit: Australian Museum
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones. Image credit: Australian Museum
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones.
Blaschka's glass models of sea anemones. Image credit: Australian Museum
Glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
Glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Image credit: Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism
Glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Image credit: Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism

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